One of my sheroes, the late Maya Angelou, once said, “Words are things, I’m convinced. You must be careful about the words you use or the words you allow to be used in your home.” Words, she felt, have the power to seep into everything around us. “I think they get on the walls,” she said, “they get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs and your upholstery and your clothes, and finally into you.”
As a young girl, Maya spent more than five years mute, after she thought the words she spoke identifying her rapist had killed someone. Years later, when she was interviewed about this time of stillness in her life, she described how she’d absorbed poetry voraciously and listened deeply to anything and everything around her. A teacher, who observed Maya’s love of poetry, had challenged her by explaining to her that she would never fully know the power of poetry until she heard herself say it out loud. And so she began reading softly to herself under the porch until she was ready to speak in front of others.
For the rest of her life, Maya mined that experience of extended silence for meaning. As a poet, musician, writer, lecturer, and global citizen who learned seven languages, she understood the need for precision and care with words because she understood their power. Word choice mattered in poetry, and it mattered in translation.
Maya was vigilant about her words and those who spoke in her presence. Acquaintances have related the story of a powerful moment at a party in Maya’s home when she heard someone telling a joke that used language that was hurtful and divisive. Maya walked across the room, helped find the person’s coat, and escorted the offender out the door. Summing up this story, she said, “Not in my house.” I doubt that anyone who was present will ever forget the power of those words and actions.
This story serves as a reminder to me that my house is not only the building I occupy but also the body I inhabit. What words surround me? What words do I use in my inner dialog? What words do I put out into the world? One of Maya Angelou’s many legacies is her careful choice of words. Each day, I intend to be mindful about how the words I choose will contribute to my legacy. How will my words be heard, and how will they be remembered?